In the fall of 1977, the novelist Howard Norman ("The Bird Artist") spent two months in Manitoba. He was 28, and by his own account "not very...

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“In Fond Remembrance of Me”

by Howard Norman

North Point Press, 166 pp., $21

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In the fall of 1977, the novelist Howard Norman (“The Bird Artist”) spent two months in Manitoba. He was 28, and by his own account “not very self-reflective, to put it bluntly.” Without much preparation or knowledge of the Inuit language, but at the behest of a museum, Norman had turned up at the Beluga Motel in Churchill to transcribe and translate a series of mythic stories, told by a local man, Mark Nupac. Eleven of these narratives, all concerned with the surprising appearance of Noah and his ark in the freezing waters of Hudson’s Bay, are included in “In Fond Remembrance of Me,” a slim and gracefully written memoir of a friendship in the far north.

Not a friendship with Nupac, who “could scarcely tolerate my presence,” as Norman ruefully recalls, but with the 10-years-older Anglo-Japanese linguist Helen Tanizaki, who also happened to be staying at the Beluga Motel and transcribing the Noah stories into Japanese. Tanizaki, who was “adored” by Nupac and who had spent her professional life “typing up the Arctic,” turned out to be an acerbic but wise guide to not only the myths and language of the Inuit but also to Japanese literature and life itself. Her sensibility informed Norman’s stay in Churchill, as he “began to calibrate my ignorance in (and newfound intoxication with) certain philosophical, spiritual, and literary subjects against Tanizaki’s strong opinions and far deeper levels of engagement.”

Norman writes that, recently, as he went through his papers, he came across his own transcriptions of the Noah stories, his daily journal and notes from the time, and his correspondence with Tanizaki, who returned to Japan after autumn in Manitoba and who died within the year. His nostalgia for that formative period in his life pushed him to shape this narrative, in which conversations with Tanizaki are broken by the Noah stories, each more brusque, funny and tragic than the next. In each one, Noah stubbornly refuses to eat his animals or accept help from the local people. In many of them he drowns or freezes alone, surrounded by giraffes and zebras, while his children and wife pass the winter with the Inuit. If he survives the winter, and reunites with his family, they immediately leave for the south.

Like all folklore, the Noah stories can’t be reduced to a single message. But they deal with a stranger who comes to the Arctic, whose riches can’t help him, and whose inability to adapt often spells death. Norman is too good a writer to draw neat parallels; he simply arranges the stories together with his recounting of the fleeting but intense friendship with the dying Tanizaki. His intent is “symphonic” and succeeds in creating a mood as much as a narrative.

Idiosyncratic, thoughtful books like “In Fond Remembrance of Me” come along rarely in the world of commercial publishing, and Norman is one of those authors about whom critic Louis Menand recently wrote in The New Yorker: “it is more painful to stop reading them than it is to keep going.” His prose has a haunting, easygoing, addictive quality, and the persona he creates for himself in this book is low-key and observant. There is nothing — and everything — to suggest that he will become a novelist of note. He takes a back seat so that Tanizaki can shine. “Don’t forget me,” she says as she leaves on the train to Montreal.

And we don’t.

Barbara Sjoholm is the Seattle author of “The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea.”